Saturday, 22 March 2014

Soooo much Snoooow....

We've had a few friends come and visit us...

Coming out to a mountain is different, it's why I do it, (that and a small thing called snowboarding!) But every once in a while it's nice to have some familiarity, and what better way than with friends?!

Ben and Lindsay were just guests last year... People who arrive on a Sunday and we look after... until the following Sunday... Holiday makers, you've probably been one? But Ben, Lindsay and a few of the other guests on that week turned in to friends. When you finish the night pilled up like a Jenga set on the dining room table, you know you've made a bond!

Ben, Chris, Me and Laura
And when I say friends I mean Facebook friends! Oh yes, that epitomy of stalker tools that let's you follow every single geographical movement, which, along with this blog, Ben followed us rambling around Europe through the summer season. He also picked up straight away when we posted that we would be returning to the chalet we ran last year and sent us a message giddy with excitement.

Kerry and I had hoped that Ben and Lindsay would return... A good set of guest means a good week in a chalet, not only for the guests themselves but for us, their hosts. So we too got excited about their return.

We were all doing the snow dance and man did it pay off! The beginning of the season was a little patchy on snow. Still ride able, just not what we were used to from last season. We had buckets of snow the week before Ben arrived and the week was made up on riding some very fresh powder on one of the emptiest weeks of the season.

Our manager and maintenance guy came over from Tignes one day and we blasted round the mountain finding all the best bits until early afternoon when Ben and I gave them an initiation to Crystal Dark, an off piste, yet piste poled run, on the far right hand side of resort. It was so lush, it seemed that hardly anyone had been down it and I don't think we saw a single soul in the 4 or 5 runs we did consecutively...

A small ridge type jump had been created, presumably by the wind, but possibly just following a contour of the land underneath. It turned out to be a nice, if a bit of a steep, jump and we all had fun hitting it as fast as we dared. I even managed to pull off a front flip/roll much to the surprise of my manager as you can hear...

Crystal Dark was re-named Crystal Meth... Once you've done it once it's sooo addictive, especially in these ideal conditions. I posted what was meant to be comical comment about loving Crystal Meth which backfired as I received worried and concerned comments and even an email from my Dad who doesn't have Facebook! Don't tell porkies about doing drugs kids! There's too many people that love you!

A few days later and a bit of chaos came to town. Ben and I were out, first run of the day, head to the top and cruise down the piste to a little off pistey bit ... Normal routine really. I shoot down the piste and sit on the top of a little hip ready to make the decent in to the powdery stuff. Turn around and Ben's had a little spill. Normal routine really! (We are boarders!) Little falls etc are common place with boarding, if your not falling your not trying... So I turn back to the mountain to plan our route down, after 10 seconds or so turn back to see if Ben is ready to set off.

He's still on the floor. Not normal routine. Normally you bounce back up, ride down and make up some excuse like you were trying a 'Backside Double McTwist off of that little lip man'. Ben finally gets up and gingerly makes his way down to me, clutching at his arm. Apologies are flying by this time and I assure Ben there's no need to be sorry, are you hurt?

      "I think I've done something to my shoulder, just have a quick feel see if it feels wrong compared to my other one"

So I'm stood there in the middle of the piste giving what either looks like a very hands on prep talk to my friend, or an impromptu massage. One things for sure, Ben's shoulder is not right!

Even through his ski jacket I can feel that his right shoulder has an egg shaped and sized 'lump' coming out of it. That's not right. Ben is confident he can make it down the mountain so we both make a slow but steady decent, mainly on our heel edges, until the top of the first lift where we unstrap and ride the chair lift down. In the mean time Lindsay and her sister are still having their snowboard lesson so Ben and I settle down on the sofa to research exactly what could be this protrusion sticking out of his shoulder.

An AC seperation is the most likely cause, basically where a big bit that is meant to be held down, is sticking up. I'm a doctor in the making! I know it's serious when Ben asks me to sit on the other sofa so he can lie down as he feels sick. Lindsay came back around lunch time and she packed a bag to go down to the hospital in Bourg with Ben.

A day later and only hours after having an operation to get some wire work done in his shoulder and Ben is signing himself out of hospital to come back to the chalet... Our cooking must be good! I was gutted for Ben. He'd looked forward to coming back out to the alps for so long and we'd chatted about it online for weeks before. Now he was unable to board for the last 2 days. But I guess that's the risk with 'Xtreme' sports.

I just don't know how, over 2 seasons, I haven't hurt anything yet?!

Sainte Foy - Top to Bottom Challenge 2014

I'm not competitive, until I think I may actually be able to win!...

We'd eaten all of the powder in Sainte Foy, a resort renowned for it's off piste. Unfortunately the lack of snow fall coupled with the sheer number (comparatively speaking as there is normally only 20 people on the slopes!) took it's toll on the fresh stuff.

We ventured a little further afield as well, chomping some lovely fresh lines down the Col de Granier. It was pretty handy really. Our guests were split quite nicely in ski/board ability allowing Kerry and I to go and do some more adventurous stuff with the better boarders, but their friends and partners were able to ski together and have a good time as well.

One evening over dinner it was decided... There was no more off piste powder runs out there so to spruce up the last days riding with some really awesome guests, a race was discussed.

And so was the birth of the Sainte Foy - Top to Bottom challenge. A no holes barred, gumball rally of a race, in no way official riding at high speed on live pistes to see which of the contenders was the fasted snowboarder.

There were only a few rules;

#1 - No off piste. No cutting corners, secret couloirs or tree runs, only between those piste poles

#2 - Any route. Any combination of pisted runs could be used to get from the Col de l'Aiguille 2620m to the finish line in front of the Maison a Colonnes in resort 1550m

And that's about it... Just get from the top to the bottom!

Headed towards the Col de Granier
3 riders were up for the challenge... myself included. And I instantly started to regret that decision. I ride with guests... a lot. Kerry and I ride with nearly every single guest who stay at our chalet, and almost every day of the week. And the last time a race was proposed, last season, I spectacularly wiped out a skiing guest who didn't take too lightly to getting intimate with me at 30mph!

The other contenders were awesome boarders as well, but named Steve, and both out to show this 'young buck' just what boarding is...

We went through a brief 'course initiation'. We were limited by our route because the local ski club had shut the l'Arpettaz piste (8) forcing us all on to the red to the right of the map, Creux de Formeian (4). Both Steves also took a slightly longer route down, making a win very easy for me! But my conscience got the better of me and I showed then the shorter route.

Sainte Foy piste map
Then the moment everyone had been waiting for.... Myself and the two Steves got on the lift at the bottom as the rest of the inhabitants from the chalet took up their positions on the sun terrace on the finish line. Kerry and another guest were to be positioned mid way up resort where they could see most of the action and relay the details, commentary style, down to the finish using 2 way radios.

Steve, Steve and I all agreed that we had hyped up this race waaaay too much. It took 30 minutes for us to ride the 3 lifts to the top, sipping drams of whiskey to calm our nerves or bolster our bravado, depending on the rider.

At the top we strapped in and waited for our signal to go, being given by Kerry on the radio... However then disaster struck, we had just dipped over the other side of the mountain and could no longer hear anyone on the tiny radio. We later found out that our friends at the finish could hear everything we were saying, but we heard nothing. A phone call came from Steve's mate from the same position as Kerry and a count down was started... 20 seconds.

As I counted down Steve rushed to put his phone back in his pocket, gloves on and prepare for the start. Then, finally, the moment of truth as we set off down the hill.

Cattle Bell trophies
We were quick, very quick, and I winced at the thought of catching an edge at these speeds. I made the first break for freedom straight off the bat. And now all I needed to do was hold on for dear life and keep it that way, with the two Steve's behind me.

All was dandy and I was loving it, wooping and cheering as I hit a big dip at high speed, forcing my legs up against the compression, but it all came unstuck as I crested the next hill and slid out, then caught my heal edge trying to get back up and clouting my head in to the floor.

I had a quick sitrep moment as I checked whether I'd actually hurt myself or broken anything. I'd crashed at the fastest point of the run so far, later finding out I was going 57mph! Luckily nothing but my lead in the race had taken a battering as I glanced up from the floor to find Steve, who was previously in 3rd, shooting past me laughing his head off! As I spun round on my stomach trying to get the board under me before taking chase I noticed the other Steve was floundering around on the floor just like me! 2 of us crashing out allowing last place to become 1st!

Now we were on. I was sat in 2nd place after composing myself and pointing the board straight down the hill. I could see Steve in 1st way out in front and could hear the other Steve close behind me, edges shooshing on the hard icey piste. Then my chance, Steve in front slipped, only slightly, but enough to put him on his arse, and enough for me to take the tighter line past him, rubbing it in with woops and cheers!

All I had to do now was hold on to the lead again. We'd just passed the point Kerry should have been at spectating, but I couldn't take my eyes off the piste in front of me to look. The trouble with going fast on a snowboard is that the fasted way is to point the board straight down the hill, but that position also means it's harder to maintain an edge, and very easy to catch an edge, at high speed. It's a catch 22 type thing.

The next section was fairly shaded by the trees on either side, that shade meant more ice, proper ice, icey ice! I was really quick here, taking advantage and pushing out further. A few people on the piste must have had a shock as I crested a hill and tore through the group followed by Steve and Steve chasing!

The last part of the course is slightly slower, a bit warmer and a lot slushier, not ideal for speed but an even playing field. I chanced a look back and took great delight in not seeing the Steve's, I was nearly home and dry and gunned it as fast as I could getting air off of little piles of snow on the piste until a particularly tricky (for me at least) section where I would normally cut off the corner. However, rule number 1 of Top to Bottom challenge #1 - No off piste, so I had to put in a big turn to scrape the speed off and correct my course, dipping to the left of the piste poles instead of heading off in to the wilderness.

Steve, me and Steve receiving our Cattle Bell trophies
I came screaming round the last corner, hands raised in jubilation, I'd won, It had taken me 4 minutes 20 seconds to do it, but I'd done it. Steve and Steve weren't far behind though, I'm glad I didn't fall again after that first one!

Later that night we had a 'Prize giving ceremony' for the trophies for the first Sainte Foy Top to Bottom Challenge. The others told us that everyone on the sun terrace were huddled around the radio listening as Kerry and Mark gave some amazing Murray Walker like commentary like "There's 3 of them coming down!" and "Someones in first but we don't know who!"

It was an amazing day, captured on some sketchy placed gopro's, check out the video below

I'm looking forward to the 2015 Sainte Foy Top to Bottom Challenge.... Will I be racing you?

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Kids kids and more kids...

We've just had 3 weeks of constant kids.

And kids are great. They think your the bomb because you've got a snowboard and they are on ski's, you can kind of get away with play fighting with them, and if their naughty you can also kind of get away with giving them a bit of a telling off.

Getting attacked by the twins

Our first bunch were Isabelle, Martha and James. All lovely kids with very different personalities. Martha couldn't resist but try and be in every single video shot, James begged me to follow him on the jumps and Isabelle, slightly older, took all this is her stride with an elegant swoosh past me. The resulting video is a wopper.

Isabelle, Martha and James

We could have done with a few relaxing weeks larking about with those guys but we were straight in to another week, This time with 4 kids from two families.

The Brebners video comes first and shows just how crazy the whole family are! Mum and Dad were just as keen to show off their skiing skills (even if this did mean wiping out the kids (or themselves) at the same time!)

Their video is over on youtube here

And then there's Marnie and Oscar, 7 and 9, for who it was the first time skiing on snow! From Brighton, (Just down the road from my home town) the whole family had a happy go lucky look at life, throwing themselves whole heartedly down the mountain. I especially like Marnie's dog who rode attached to her helmet to give her a bit more bump protection when she fell over.

Marnie and Oscar

Oscar has even made his own website over at so he can practice his HTML.... at 9 years old! Check it out for instructions to make a Coke bottle explode

The whole family on the chair

Normally I like hooning about in the deep stuff off piste. However, over the last few weeks I've thoroughly enjoyed these kids company and the crazy riding I've had to do to keep up with them.

If you've got kids... go skiing........ If your going skiing..... get baby makin'!

Children add a lot of fun to a skiing holiday!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

We finally land back in our Chalet...!

It was like coming home. All those bloody steps!...

But when we finally got a lift round to Sainte Foy with our manager both Kerry and I had smiles on our faces. The resort was lacking a bit of snow but was instantly recognisable. We opened the door to the chalet to a cloud of feathers. People had been in to remove the sofa cushion covers to die them black. But apart from it looking like a chicken coop, she was just as we left her.

We had a week in total to get the chalet ready, clean her up a bit and get the shopping in. Our first week of guests was, yet again Christmas week.

Christmas, New Year, Easter and half terms are... in my opinion... always the hardest weeks. People pay top dollar to come, like thousands per person.. and so (possibly rightly so) expect a lot. These guests were no exception.

They owned multiple 8 bedroom houses, had au pairs and gardeners and pool boys. They shipped their kids off to boarding school, then got pissed off at them when they were around on 'holiday'. It was funny to watch really. But being our first week back in the game it made it hard. Really hard. Like I don't want to be here hard. I got quite depressed.

The snow wasn't as good as last year. Apparently last year was the best snow year in 60 years for volume and consistency with snowfall being spread out over the whole season. This year I was boarding down runs I had boarded last year and suddenly come across a river, having to unstrap and climb over it. That wasn't there last year!

So I got a bit down... but the next week was a lot better. A lovely family from South West Wales stayed with us. They were very Welsh, speaking their native tongue most of the time. It was interesting to listen to... all of a sudden an English word would pop up! I've always loved the Welsh people. I found it very easy hitchhiking in Wales when I did my Hitchventure in 2012.

The fireworks on New Year were spectacular. For such a small resort Sainte Foy definitely knows how to spend some money on explosions. The party games started straight after dinner with the two welsh brothers, 21 and 23 getting very competitive about who could climb around the table the quickest.

A group of 50 odd year old blokes stayed the week after and it was chaos to board with them. But fun at the same time. One bloke in particular just careered around, completely out of control, yet loving every minute. I cut together this video after riding with them for a day.

It was also our first experience catering for vegetarians. There was a couple booked in with the blokes and they didn't eat meat. It didn't go too badly really! I thought it would be mountains more work, making another dish as well as catering for the carnivores. But that wasn't the case. Heaven forbid if we ever get someone who's lactose intolerant, allergic to gluten or a fruitarian! Veggies we can do!

After a few weeks under our belt I now feel more at home, more at ease. It also helped that we had very few bookings and were treated to a week off! There was absolutely no one booked in! I was tasked with picking a new member of staff up from Geneva airport on the Wednesday, but other than that we had the chalet to ourselves!

Home at last!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Meribel and Tignes Le Breviere...

So here we are, lugging the same board bag and holdalls up to London...

We were invited back to run the same winter chalet that we did last year via a facebook message. And, running a little low on cash, decided another winter of boarding on a beautiful mountain wouldn't be much punishment for a few quid.

The coach journey from London to the Alps was not so bad this time. I managed to sleep fairly well and when we got to La Tania were divided up in to a few groups and shipped off to Meribel to settle in to a nice Chalet... not being waited on hand and foot in the companies hotel like last year.

This training week was different to last year. We were placed with 6 other wannabe chalet hosts and given a chalet, a manager and a chef. The next few days were spent learning to cook, clean and generally chatting about the practicalities of running a chalet. Our group were all couples, either people dating or friends who had decided to do a season so it was a really nice atmosphere.

We went out to the bar a few times in the evening, introducing the younger, unseasoned seasonnaires to Mutzig and Affligem, 7 - 8% lagers that seem to catch up on you!

Obviously Kerry and I knew which resort and chalet we were going to be put in. We chose to come back afterall. But the others in our Chalet had no idea where they were going.. and most no idea where they wanted to go. So everyone was excited, including Kerry and I, as Terry, our interim manager announced the selections. Everyone seemed pleased with their placements, some going to Les Gets and some staying here in Meribel.

After a rather boring morning doing the obligatory food hygiene course, we were pilling on to a bus and being taken to resort. The good bit! The bit everyone's been waiting for! Except Kerry and I, as we knew we wouldn't quite get to our resort just yet. We were destined for Tignes Le Breviere, a part of Tignes about the same height as our resort, just 20 minutes round the corner.

We always find this bit a touch annoying as you don't want to get properly settled in, only to move in a week or so, and it's always in the back of your head that your own chalet needs tarting up and organising before you get guests. One advantage was the apres though. We don't get much of a night life in our resort, so going to Tignes I took the opportunity to drink some beer... and drink beer is what I did.

I was out with all the lads from the chalets in Tignes. We had a few drinks in the chalet, then a few more in Vincents bar and finally ended up in the Underground bar The Vault. God knows what happens next, except for me waking up at 7:30, sat bolt upright in a big Chesterfield arm chair with a half played game of chess next to me. My head was pounding and my mouth felt like I'd been eating silica gel sachets. I gingerly got up and looked around the lounge I was in, finally making it to the front door and out on to the street. I was outside of a totally random chalet a 15 minute walk from the one I was meant to be sleeping in!~

Kerry wasn't pleased. She had been out looking for me at 3am, traipsing round the little town trying to find me. Every year a seasonnaire or two are caught out being too drunk and falling asleep outside where it gets to -25 C at night. But I was home safe... thanks to that random chalet.

Kerry and I were treated to a little night time soiree when Evolution 2 invited our manager and a few staff to a wilderness experience. We didn't really know what to expect. But turned up at the prescribed time to find 4 huge yurts setup in the snow. Massive flaming torches were everywhere and we were told to sit on the beanbags surrounding the big fire pit. It really was amazing. After a little while we were given cups of some sort of wine/spirit and paper bowls with hot soup in. It was nice to get to know our manager and the Tignes rep a little more... before we were called in to one of the yurts to sit down for dinner.

The food was good ole French Tartiflette and salad. One of my favourite French foods, and we had wine at the table. All around the yurt were tens if not hundreds of candles. There was no electricity up here on the side of the mountain and everything was powered by fire. Now we were sitting in, what I presumed to be, a very flammable wooden and cloth yurt, with one exit and hundreds of little flames for lighting. I expressed my concerns jovially with Kerry and the others.

Then my fear was realised. One of the girls serving the food had to move backwards to let a hot platter through and when she turned around her fur hood had caught fire! She'd inadvertently leant back in to a candle and now had a foot high flame roaring up behind her head. I heard a few people gasp... the girl was non the wiser... but no one moved! So I lept up and start twacking this girl like she was on fire. She WAS on fire.

The flame went out easily and she nonchalantly turned around and said "Was I on fire?" as everyone applauded. I felt like a superhero! And I sat back down to enjoy my dinner whilst keeping watch in case I needed to whip out my cape and come to another damsels rescue.

Candles everywhere!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Mini Motorhome Holiday...

Day after getting back to England and the phone rings...

"Your not in Pisa anymore are you?"


"Damnit... want to come on a motorhome holiday?"

Russell, an old friend and at one point housemate, had been following mine and Kerry's journey through this blog and the VagabondingAdam facebook page, and had decided he'd had enough of life at home and was going to embark on a motorhome trip himself, albeit for 5 days, but still getting away from the norm.

Parked up in Ypres (I'm asleep in the back!)
He had hired a monster of a motorhome from a company in England and, along with his friend Alison, was set to gun it down to Pisa to meet us. It was only when I posted it was 'good to be home' on Facebook that he rang me. In our hasty retreat back from Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel  we had scuppered his plans of a surprise rendezvous.

However the van and ferry were booked and he offered that I accompany them along on the trip, wherever it may take them. All, very generously, free of charge! So I wracked my brains for the next few days thinking of where to go. South for some heat? West for some History on the Normandy coast? Or North in to the Netherlands for some culture? Russell made the final decision and we were destined for a round about trip to Amsterdam.

Picking the van up mid afternoon we made good time to the Euro Tunnel and was cruising through France to the outskirts of Belgium and our first stop... Ypres. I had, however, forgotten one very important point from living with Russell for six months. His snoring! And now I was locked in a reverberating fiberglass van with him! The last time I looked at my watch was 4:15. I then woke up at 6:15 and was exhausted. I wondered how the hell Alison had managed to sleep being nearer to Russell but she seemed fine. I was not. Throughout the night I'd asked myself how I'd get through the next 4 days. And had come to the conclusion that I could not!

The next day I asked for Russell to drop me off at the nearest service station. I had to go home. I couldn't live on 2 hours sleep and I didn't want to ruin Russell and Alison's holiday. So we pootled to the services and I soon discovered I wouldnt be able to cross the carriageway to then hitchhike North to the ferry crossing. I had succumbed to heading home, but was now on the southbound carriageway. We all had a chat over a service station sandwich and it was decided that I'd sleep in the van whilst the pair looked around Ypres and we would go from there.

I got a couple of hours of lovely sleep and felt a lot better. I was back in the game... and had decided that a few bottles of wine and we going to bed 5 minutes before Russell may mean a happier night. We headed north and stopped off at one of the numerous war memorials dotted around the Belgian countryside. The first was commemorating a Canadian battalion that perished and the second was a huge expanse of graves from differing allied forces.

A number of the graves were labeled as "a soldier of the war" or something of similar effect, denoting that they could not identify some of the fallen that were buried here.

I've been to the grave sights before with school, but re-visiting never deadens the sombre feelings and thoughts that accompany such a moving place.

After a quick pasta lunch cooked in the lovely modern van we shot up the road towards Bruges. I was very keen to visit Bruges, being a huge fan of the film 'In Bruges' and its dark comic morals that unfold unexpectedly. A must watch in my opinion, and definitely one of the top ten films in my book. However, we navigated around the city looking for parking that would facilitate the height of the van. Driving such a big vehicle in cities is always a pain. And my motorhome parkings android app didn't help us much at all. I had near enough given up, opting to head up the road a bit more and head to a known parking spot Kerry and I have frequented often in Rotterdam. But Russell was more persistent and it paid off. We followed the ring road round the city and found a whole load of motorhomes parked on the side of the road next to a canal. Not the most picturesque of places, but somewhere a few minutes walk to the centre of town.

Walking through the streets was just as described in the film. Picturesque, quaint, old. "Why would anyone want to come to fucking Bruges?!"

You could tell we were getting in to the more Dutch part of the country as canals wound their ways through streets. There was no efficient cycle paths and city layouts just yet though.

We wandered through the squares and streets, using NavFree to guide us in Pedestrian mode. We had to jump out of the way on more than one occasion as horse drawn carts charged past us as if we weren't there. I couldn't quite pick out the bar that Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson frequented when we got to the main square but opted for the nearest, authentic looking Belgian bar and ordered a large local beer. Of course large here is a proper stein (1 litre) and we all sat supping away, watching the hustle and bustle of the city. The famous bell tower was at the other end of the square. I did have a quick look to see if there was a dent in the pavement. (watch the film)

After we were suitably lubricated (well, Alison and I atleast... one bonus of having a personal driver! (Russell)) We made the fair trek to Rotterdam, crossing over or under the river the wrong way, but safely navigating to Mine and Kerry's favourite overnight stop in the Scheidam district. The windmill was lit up as usual and we hunkered down for a nice dinner, bottle (or two) of wine whilst watching the wildlife on the canal a few feet away.

That night we discussed and browsed on the map to see if we could make it in to Rotterdam center. It was about 3 miles away, winding through past canals and then along a very straight road. So the next morning we set out, walking at a steady, yet leisurely pace. Shops started to build up as we entered in to the more central area. We were stopped as a huge section of the road was lifted up vertically infront of us. A boat was passing on the canal below.

All the while we were walking in the Euromast tower was looming in the distance. I hadn't seen it before on other trips to Rotterdam, but now it's shape silhouetted against the clouds and we headed for it's base.

It cost us around 10 euros each to go in to the tower and make our way up to the 'Crows nest' observation point. It was pretty cold when we got out on to the decking, but the views were spectacular. I felt like I could almost see the sea from up here and the city looked spectacular with the park winding itsway through the concrete jungle. I tried re-tracing our footsteps back to find 'our' windmill and van, but got a bit lost after I positively identified a KFC we had walked past!

I do have to say that I let myself down though. We started up the see-through galvanised metal steps towards the 'Space tower' extention of the tower, which raises you up another 85 meters, but the height and the wind really got to me. I had to come back down. Alison felt the same vertigo, but Russell was fine and ambled up the steps and in to the pod type lift that then takes you up to the top, circling the tower as it goes. Again my fears have let me down, but I already felt ill from being at the crows nest, let alone another 85 metres. Oh well, I guess it means I've got to go back!

We had a convoluted journey back to the van, trying to use the train system but not being able to buy a ticket, then standing gormlessly at the other end as we were stranded behind the barriers with no ticket to get out. But we made it back to the van after a little time convincing the conductor we would buy a ticket and continued our journey up in to the north of Holland, towards Amsterdam.

The little spot I had in mind for parking the van was a bit of a dodgy one. We had been there before with Mia and, whilst there was a lot of obvious van living activity going on, were awakened one morning by two, nice, but insistent police officers who said we couldn't stay. I chose not to disclose this story to Russell and we parked up in the general vicinity of some dutch motorhomes and made the short, 20 minute stroll to the ferry where we were met by a spectacular display of yellows, reds and oranges as the setting sun disappeared behind Grand Central Station across the water.

That evening we ambled around the city, trying out some coffeeshops and taking in the sights of the red light district, which if I must say, was looking a bit worse for wear. Perhaps its the time of year?

Amazingly Russell had never been to Amsterdam before. We spent one whole day chilling out and doing a bit of souvenir shopping, not really having the time or money to spend half a day on the water, or whizzing round the dungeons. But I hope our short visit has inspired Russell to come back.

The homeward journey was one big long push from Amsterdam right the way back to the train terminal at Calais. I'd had a good week with Alison and Russell. I hope my knowledge of the cities and the parking spots made an otherwise pain in the arse (arriving in a city with a motorhome) that little bit easier.

I'm also glad I hadn't hitchhiked home after the first night. I combated the snoring by wedging the mattress from the lower bunk in to the opening of the top bunk, wearing my music headphones and making sure I was a little inebriated every night. A good excuse I think!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Pisa cake and a big long tunnel...

Driving through the tunnel at San Giuliano Terme and opening out with the city of Pisa infront of us was spectacular.

After a day recovering from the night before in Rome, Kerry and I drove through the misty, rainy region of Tuscany to get to a motorhome aire located just outside Pisa, famous for it's leaning tower. But as soon as we popped out of a fairly short tunnel under a hilly section, our spirits were brightened and the hangovers seemed to fade away. The setting sun shone in to the van and a picturesque countryside opened out to the seas in the distance.

Navigating around the Eastern part of Pisa was a little tricky as there was a huge viaduct traversing its way across the town. Unfortunately the arches had a height limit that we could not get under so we had to follow it until we found a broken down section with a road to get through. Getting to the Aire was a piece of cake and we were welcomed by happy faces, a map of the town and a large, fully functional aire with tens of vans in. Not like other parts of Italy!

It seemed this place had it nailed. I can only surmise that the authorities recognised and valued the custom that motorhomers can bring and invested a bit of money to welcome them whole heartedly.

We got chatting to the guy on the front gate and it transpired that his daughter lived just 20 miles away from our home town in Burgess Hill. He gave us a card for an Italian restaurant that she ran and also gave us his card and said to show it if we ate there to get a discount. His title was Colonel!

After a lovely dinner and a few bottles of wine from the nearby Carrefour we got our heads down ready for a day meandering through the streets of Pisa. The walk in to town was a pleasant, mile long, amble. Going through the walls of the old walled city changed the scenery from modern roads to almost medieval looking cobbled streets.

The sun was shining and the whole city felt warm. The streets were lined with soft hues of stone block work and then suddenly open out in to numerous squares. People cycled around and coffee shops were packed.. We are in Italy still!

I managed to get us a bit lost... of which I was quite disappointed. I pride myself in my magical navigatory skills, but Pisa broke me. We ended up walking straight passed the 'Leaning Tower' and out of the other side of the city! But after a quick re-orientation using the river as an aid we were back on track, walking down the same streets just in reverse!

Then it opened out in to the square with the leaning tower leaning at a very scary angle. I didn't realise just how much it lent over! Basically when they started building it they got Bodgit 'n' Scarper in to do the footings. Consequently it started to lean just a year in to construction. It took over 200 years to build because Pisa was constantly fighting Florence, Lucca and Genoa.

See the slight curve?
Half way through they decided to build the top portion at a corrected angle, making the tower actually curved. I thought this was a funny idea. It also means that the tower has either 194 or 196 steps, depending on which set you take.

What I didn't realise was that the tower was accompanied by two other very spectacular buildings, a cathedral and a baptistery. All religious in nature, and all lavished in elaborate masonry and even some gold leaf. The marble used to build them was very white and had come from the same mountains we had popped out of on our way to the city.

All around the plaza was a well kept lawn. There were signs everywhere saying 'Keep off the grass' in all different languages. The only trouble was that to get the best picture you HAD to go on the grass. So we watched for a good half an hour as 4 'grass police' chased and ushered people off of one section of the grassy area, only to turn around and find that 20 other people had just hopped the small, knee high fence 50 metres away. Quite why they couldn't pavement the best sections I don't know. I suppose it kept them in a crazy job of cat and mouse.

Another funny thing to watch was all of the poeple 'holding up' the tower. Except we chose to watch them from a totally different angle. This made it seem like they were at some sort of gym or aerobics class. Either that or training at a Hitler youth camp.

We, of course, couldn't resist, and followed suit with our own homage to holding up the tower. Ironically the tower doesn't need holding up. Engineers stabilised it in 2008, claiming that it would be stable for the next 200 years.


Kerry flexing her muscles
The sun was beating down and we had a nice cold beer and typical Italian pizza in Pisa! It was very nice. Again I made the mistake of asking for my Calzonni to be 'hot'. Forgetting that they came pretty darn hot to start with. I struggled through, quenching the burn with pint after pint of beer. Phew!

After another night in the excellent Aire we decided to make a trek home. The van was still making clunky noises and we were pretty tired. The first leg was up in to Northern Italy and passed Torino. Night time set it and we fueled had to fuel up again at an astonishingly high rate of 1.80 euro a litre. Then we noticed that there were lights high up in the distance ahead and decided to hunker down in a small town so we could see the alps during the day.

Upon waking up we were met with spectacular views of the peaks. We made our way up in to the mountains and towards the Mont Blanc tunnel.

The tunnel itself is an amazing 11.6 km (7.2 Miles) long. An astonishing feet of engineering. We paid our 50 Euro fee to use the tunnel and was met with a mutli-lane, gated entry where we sat waiting our turn. Once our neighbours had entered the tunnel the system waited until they were the obligatory length in to the tunnel and then our gate would open, allowing us to proceed. Inside the tunnel was a strict speed limit and we had to maintain 2 blue LED lights between us and the vehicle in front.

All of these precautions were because of a lorry fire in 1999 that showed just how dangerous the tunnel could be in an emergency. 39 people died. The ventilation system forced the smoke down the tunnel faster than the fleeing people and cars could go and the lack of oxygen stalled the engines in the cars. Drivers wound their windows up waiting for rescue but the fire crews engines has also stalled and the stricken vehicles meant they could not get to then truck.

Unfortunately the truck was carrying margarine and flour, two fairly flammable substances. It burnt for 53 hours, reaching 1000 degrees C. Some people say that the authorities compounded the situation by force venting the tunnel with fresh air from the French side, fueling the fire with oxygen.

Mont Blanc tunnel
After safely exiting the tunnel we gunned it for home. We were all Frenched out. Whilst France is a lovely, changeable and interesting landscape... We'd seen it all before and northern France can be a little monotinous with its constant rolling hills and plains. We made the journey from Torino, Italy to Dieppe, France in 12 hours including the tunnel, stopping only for fuel stops. We were lucky and grabbed the last available place on the ferry the next day. Our second stint in Europe was over and we happily, if also tiredly, drove in to Horsham late that evening.

Mont Blanc from afar

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Grand Civilisation of Rome...

Getting in to Rome after dark was a nightmare...

The quality Italian driving only intensified as we neared the city. Instead up here in Northern Italy it wasn't old people in their Panda 4 x 4's but swish looking young ladies wearing high heels carrying a labelled (yet known to me) handbag on their little scooters.

We were headed for a campsite called Camping Village Roma, situated on the street Via Aurelia, some 4kn from the centre of Rome. Well.... The very helpful Navfree app we so enthusiastically adore and swear by decided that the easiest route was through the middle of town. Driving through town in Rome isn't like driving through town at home. Driving through town in Rome is like battling a hoard of orcs with a toothpick whilst clad in a sumo outfit!

Via Aurelia is also a bit of a farce. There are at least 3 streets we found called Via Aurelia (god knows how many others we didn't manage to find!) all of which are a good distance apart. But, finally, after considering hunkering down next to a grand palace, we managed to find the campsite. It was about 11 at night and the price for the nights stay would have been 30 Euros, a fair sum for a pair of vagabonds so Kerry and I decided to park in the train station car park next to it and migrate over in the morning, avoiding an expensive outlay.

Train station car parks, particularly peripheral city ones aren't places to stay in a foreign motorhome. The next day we were disturbed twice by unscrupulous characters 'testing the waters' on our van. One even booted the front wing, leaving a mark, but was very apologetic as he sped off on his scooter. I'm sure, if we had not have been in the van, we would have come back to it and found a similar situation as Barcelona. City visits aren't conducive to van life!

Never the less we persevered and booked in for a couple of nights stay in the campsite, catching the bus in to Rome itself the next day. Rome is a mix mash of old and new. It's obvious that the city is proud of it's heritage. Every piece of architecture was cordoned off and had placards explaining what you were looking at, from huge decrepid religious places, with only the columns still standing, to the famous grand Colosseum. Yet all around was a modern, thriving city. Taxi's jostled for position, tourists looked around in amazement/bewilderment and the locals bustled past as if we were all just annoying moving obstacles.

We walked around looking for food in what was reportedly the food quarter, but only came across little quaint, expensive Italian restaurants or small takeaway pizza type places. So after a little more walking and some increasingly sore feet decided to grab a taxi and head over to our destination for the night.
We'd heard of a funky house night at a night club called AKAB. The tag line of "I fink U Freaky" did it for me! But before the mayhem that is a night out on the town we thought it best to grab a bite to eat. The restaurant we chose was a very swanky looking one. We went full bore on the food as well, having what ever we wanted, starters, desserts, lots of bottles of wine and came out full, and over 100 Euros lighter! So much for Vagabonding! We will put this down as another 'treat' then.

The club was next to a bar and we proceeded to get blind drunk after all the wine at dinner and now beers. The queue for the club was round the corner. Desperate to get in, as I'd just got in the dancing mood, we ambled towards the front to check out the door. It wasn't open yet, but as we walked nearer the doors opened and we just casually walked in front of everyone queuing and were first in the club! No entrance fees, no waiting... just two drunkards bimbling through the night! What happens next is anyones guess. But we landed back at the campsite at 6am still partying in the taxi!

The next day was a write off... I blame my better half! It's always good to have a blow out night... but my word do I feel it the next day. After two days in Rome it was time to move on. Cities aren't places for vans. However we'd researched a fantastic sounding aire located in Pisa and decided to set the compass...North

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Ancient City of Pompeii...

A strange thing... to walk on streets 2000 years old.

Colosseum with rare solid floor 
But that's what we found ourselves doing after a short drive North and towards the looming Mount Vesuvius. The Pompeii we all know and love is now a district of the modern city Pompei (notice the subtle difference?). Parking the van was comparatively easy and after a few minutes paying for tickets and we were met with a huge Colosseum type building and the slaves entrance through a few tunnels opening out in to the amphitheater.

This theater had a solid floor, unlike other Roman remains, and so gave the viewer an immense sense of immersion. If I blanked out the hoards of old and chinese people (Two seperate groups, sometimes combined) it really felt like I could have been there... doomed by my previous owner as he sold me to the slave master for the measly sum of 2 Denarius's (Roman coinage). Luckily I only had to fight off the urge to photo bomb the Chinese tourists as Kerry and I walked to and through the otherside of the arena.

All around Pompeii there are typical, stepped vineyards. All of the vines are orientated to a certain direction to give greatest exposure to the sun, and consequently increasing yield of grapes. Each yard was owned and operated by a well-to-do Roman aristocrat and produced their own seperate brand of wine with completely different grape varieties. By looking at the grape vines that were buried in the ash, archaeologists were able to determine over 400 totally different types of grape vine.

So what's all this about ash? Who's he? Mount Vesuvius is actually a comparably very active volcano. It's most notable eruption was in 79AD when it spat tons of rock, ash and gases 20 miles in to the atmosphere. It produced running lava flows consisting of 1.5 million tons of material per second. That's a lot of rock!

The result to the neighbouring cities of Pomepeii and Herculaneum was a deposit of ash and rock nearly 3 metres thick in places. This rock and ash was devastating to the cities. An estimated 16,000 people died in the initial lava flow and rock expulsion. Archaeologically, however, this layer protected the site, maintaining a whole Roman city in that one instant, when the volcano erupted. After excavating a large portion it is now open to the public.

Ruins of the Basillica used by Roman Pompeii citizens for prayer

We walked around the streets of Pompeii as if it was a sort of theme park. There was no sombriety shown by any of the multi-national sightseers. And I myself didn't feel like I do when I've visited war graves in Belgium, or any grave for that matter. Because this is what Pompeii is... A mass grave. Granted it's in quite an obscure setting, how many graves ARE a city as well?

Perhaps the whole place detaches itself from the reality of what happened? Maybe it's just too preserved. Walking around the streets and sometimes you could wonder what all the fuss was about. The infrastructure is still there, roads are very definable, kurbs, sewers, swimming pools, even obligatory modern water pipes to quench the thirst of today's unattached spectators.

What was actually quite disturbing to me was the few lost souls who were truly immortalised by the eruption. Some city dwellers met their end asleep such as this guy in the glass case. That is not their actual physical self mummified. The cast is made of plaster of Paris and is injected in to the void that the now rotted flesh left behind. It enforces the very speed in which events occurred.

I found it very vivid. Some buildings and rooms were open. Anyone could walk inside, there were spectacular pictures painted on the walls with barely any empty space. You could walk around the house, as if you were there before the eruption. Shops still had their frontage and pots for their wares. 

 There was also some interesting conservation work being done. This photo demonstrated how they use scaffolding systems to support falling sections of wall. It appeared that rainfall had dug away at the foundations.

As we progressed through the labyrinth of streets, some with massive 'speed humps', the landscape opened out in to a sort of square with the ruins of a respectably sized basillica. This was obviously the main congregation area of the city with decorative fountains and large open spaces.

It then transpired that we had come in to the city through the back entrance and we were spat out at the main entrance a few minutes walk around the walls of the city from our van and where we had entered.

Both Kerry and I were hungry when we got back to the van and having an hour left on the parking meter took the chance to grab some cheap food in the form of a kebab. Kebab, chips and a drink dented our pocket to the tune of 6 Euros a head and we were fully satisfied for the drive to Rome which we wanted to get done before night fall.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Vollo del Angelo...

Diego showed us an amazing video.. and it made us want to be in the video...

At dinner on the last night we were at Diego's farm talk turned toward where we would go and what we would do after leaving. We'd already planned to visit Kerry's Grandad, Vito's farmhouse in Contursi Terme but thought it couldn't hurt to ask for other ideas.

The woofer who was staying with Diego was called Rossella. She was in her 30's and had stayed with Diego and everyone else at the farm for a whole year! She had told me how beautiful the landscape was around Potenza and Matera where she came from. So when Diego showed us a video of him doing the Vollo Del Angelo, which is smack bank in the middle of the two towns Rossella mentioned, it seemed like the ideal thrill seeker activity and within minutes we'd booked ourselves a space.

Prepare....... Engage!
The Vollo del Angelo means 'Flight of the Angel' in English. It is a set of zip wires that shoot people 1.5km across a large ravine in the Dolomite mountain range at up to 70 miles per hour! There are two routes on two totally separate wires. Both wires connect the two mountain towns of Castelmessano and Pietrapertosa just in different directions.

When booking online it became apparent that their operational season was coming to an end and we booked on the last day they would run that year! Instant regret washed over me as I read the stats back after booking. 1.5km long 70 mph 400 metres up. uh oh.

I'm petrified of heights. I really am. You know when someone says they go weak at the knees. It's no bull shit. I've had it happen and physically had to sit down. I start to shake uncontrollably, even if I'm desperate to do what ever it is i'm at height for.

Getting to the first town Castelmessano was more eventful than we expected. Three Quarters of the van's exhaust system decided to leave us while we were on the motorway. Luckily all of the boxes were on the front part of the system and she doesn't sound or run any different! A small pit-stop had to be made in a lay-by to ensure everything was safe and to recover the hunk of metal off the road.

Save me oh holy helmet
We pulled in to Castelmessano and was inundated with traffic. It's obvious the Vollo del Angelo is a major tourist attraction, bringing people to an otherwise overlooked section of Italy. I say overlooked because the mountain range is really magnificent. Parking was a nightmare but eventually we were walking to the first platform. Kerry, bless her, found the 20 minute walk up the side of the mountain a little strenuous. The air was definitely thinner.

We got to the first station amid a clatter of Italian hollering and gesturing. I don't speak a word of Italian. We were told to wait a bit. After about 45 minutes no one had gone on the zip wire and I was getting more and more scared. All sorts of thoughts were running through my head. The last person to go had had an accident. They'd found a fault in the cabling. A helicopter had hit the wire. A meteor was scheduled to hit the mountain any minute. The world was just about to explode in to tiny space fragments.

What was more likely is that we'd got there just as lunch started and now they'd all finished it was time to 'fly'. Kerry and I were at the top first and so, naively, thought we would be going first. I always prefer to go first. Then I don't get to see the process, watch how it all works, see any of the mistakes that can be made. I'd already convinced myself that every bolt was tight and every weld was good and strong. Now I had to witness everyone who had turned up behind Kerry and I go on the bloody thing before us!

At long last they pointed at me, dressed to the nines in a sort of suspended sleeping bag. God knows what that tiny helmet is there for. If shit hits the fan I'm plunging 400 metres to the ravine floor, a bit of plastic clad polystyrene isn't going to help me.

I got hooked up and instantly felt more scared. They put on a small piece of material to act as a wind break. Dependent on the last riders landing speed and weight they then determine which size 'wing' to put on. I got a yellow one. I don't know what that means. Then with a little 'Enjoy your flight, Ciao' the woman pulled the release and I was set forth to my doom.

Kerry coming in to land
The first 7 or 8 seconds I was flying fairly low over a small field but then the floor literally fell away as I shot over the cliff and in to the ravine. Instantly I felt calm... I was totally removed from the situation. It was as if I wasn't there. I was simply viewing what was going on. As if through a television screen. In a video game maybe? And it was awesome! Every feeling of fear literally dropped out of me. I was able to simply enjoy the whole experience.

I looked in all directions, whizzing along the steel cable with a constant humming noise. To my left the ravine opened out to a vast pasture, to the right the ravine cut deep in to the mountains. Below me were sharp, stalactite like rock formations and then the road, weaving and winding it's way up the other side to the town of Pietrapertosa. Then it dawned on me. I've now got to 'land', and I have no idea how that works! I could see the platform rushing towards me, oh crap!

It was fine. I hit a small break and was sharply, but not violently, brought to a halt.The attendant unclipped me and I walked away, unscathed, unharmed and with a strong desire to do this all day long! Thank god there was the return journey!

The Vollo del Angelo is a spectacular experience. A must see for anyone in the area, and a worthy cause to travel for it if your not in the area. I've heard there is going to be a similar attraction installed on Mount Snowdon. If that's true... I'm there!

Enjoy the video below. It is filmed by Youtube user David Kilpatrick and shows both flights from each of the towns. It gives a good taste for what to expect, but does not in any way replicate the experience. For that your going to have to head over to Italy and strap yourself in! You won't regret it!